The Hill Street Blues Legacy
SERGEANT'S ROLL CALL : 6.57am
Television has enjoyed a cultural renaissance in recent years with more quality programmes being produced aimed at a more discerning adult audience.
Higher production values with more involved plot-lines, strong dialogue and fully developed character roles have been the result of good writers returning to the TV medium rather than the CGI emptiness of the cinema.
Police dramas especially have changed over the years and today we have the three ‘CSI’ series, ‘The Shield’, ‘NCIS’,’The Wire’ and ‘Law and Order’ all enjoying commercial success and critical acclaim.
But all of these programmes owe their heritage to one forebear. The multi-award winning ‘Hill Street Blues’ which first broadcast almost 30 years ago running from 1981-87.
It was the brainchild of producer and writer Steven Bochco and it marked new territory in the genre of the TV cop show. It was thanks to Mary Tyler Moore that the show enjoyed such success under the independent production of 'MTM Enterprises' which she founded in 1969 with her then husband Grant Tinker.
Hill Street Blues accumulated 98 'Emmy' nominations over 7 series and actually won 26 of these, placing it among the most successful TV shows in history. Ironically it had never enjoyed huge ratings and incredibly faced being cancelled after only one series.
The hallmark of ‘Hill Street Blues’ amongst many other attributes was that it introduced the ensemble cast into a Police series. It also dispensed with the notion of self-contained episodes where the cops beat the bad guys and had the case sewn up before the credits.
Instead plot-lines could run for several episodes and even be resumed at a later date with characters being re-introduced. This allowed the writers to fully develop their storylines.
Multi-casting was a novel approach as previously the popular shows of the 1970s had one protagonist such as super-sleuth ‘Colombo’ or the wise-cracking ‘Kojak’ the latter of which although involving strong supporting roles nevertheless served mainly as a vehicle for the talents of Telly Savalas.
Of course the ‘buddy’ style of cop show existed most popularly from ‘Dragnet’ to ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and less so with ‘Cagney and Lacey’ and ‘TJ Hooker’. In fact of all the cop shows preceding it the one most closely associated with ‘Hill Street Blues’ would be ‘Barney Miller’ a situation comedy that successfully attempted to show daily detective work as it really was.
But the influence of ‘Hill Street Blues’ was not restricted to Police series as it also inspired new ground in hospital drama. This was first displayed by ‘St Elsewhere’ another MTM production which unsurprisingly followed a similar formula of multiple characters and plot-lines, authenticity and a touch of black comedy.
Subsequently more hospital dramas appeared like ‘Chicago Hope’ and of course the hugely successful ‘E.R' which enjoyed wide popular and critical acclaim.
Another more direct comparison can be made with the excellent 'Homicide: Life on the Streets' and less directly perhaps with 'The Sopranos' but which still contained shades of the Hill St influence in its style.
But possibly the most striking comparison with recent TV programmes has been with ‘The West Wing’ which despite involving a completely different subject matter, is obviously a direct descendent of Hill St as it shares the strong ensemble cast with interwoven stories and quality dialogue well served by fine acting.
All of these shows have faithfully followed the benchmark set by Steven Bochco and the other talented people behind ‘Hill Street Blues’ such as Anthony Yerkovich, David Milch, Gregory Hoblit and Michael Kozoll.
They established gritty, hard-hitting dramas inhabited with real people and real situations.Gone were the two-dimensional heroic figures with their clichéd car chases, hip and slick catchphrases embedded in a black and white portrayal of good guys versus bad guys.
Hill Street Blues served up a warts and all image of police officers and the dangerous duties they performed. This was enhanced by the pioneering use of hand-held cameras and mood lighting on a TV programme that produced realistic images of 'cinema verité' not conforming to the familiar staged set-piece direction of the shows of the 1960’s and 70’s..
Alongside this faithful adherence to reality was also the effort put in to fully develop the characterisation of the roles played by the many wonderful actors in the show.
No more so than Daniel J. Travanti who was memorable as the ethical and compassionate Captain Frank Furillo who, although he was as tough as nails when the situation demanded, always nursed that fragility of the recovering alcoholic in a highly stressful occupation.
Veronica Hamel as the perfect beauty of the Public Defender Joyce Davenport and Betty Thomas the unconventionally sexy Lucy Bates but both given the freedom to build up strong female roles in a male dominated environment.
In earlier episodes you would have been forgiven for regarding Bruce Weitz’s ‘Belker’ as nothing more than a comic portrayal of a psychopathic ankle-biter. But as the series progressed we see that he even became a family man settling eventually into a stable domesticity with a female officer Robin Tattaglia eventually fathering a child together.
Similarly with Lt Howard Hunter played by the vastly underrated James B. Sikking, who is initially seen as a clinically efficient SWAT commander with authoritarian, right-wing tendencies descending into occasional buffoonery.
However as the series progressed Sikking also, with the aid of the writers, brought a real depth and understanding of the flaws and the humanity of his character.
In the early shows his natural reaction to the ethnic diversity of America’s melting pot was to order one of his subordinates to “Check that man’s immigration status” when apprehending a black or Hispanic suspect.
However as the series progressed we later saw Hunter as much more than the officer with a touch of racism and more as a deeply-flawed, deeply human character struggling with inner turmoil and repressed emotions as he maintained a public, stoic front in the line if duty.
But all of the cast of ‘Hill Street Blues’ were fine actors and actresses and blended perfectly with each other from Michael Conrad as Sergeant Esterhaus with his trademark catchphrase “Let’s be careful out there” downstairs at roll call to Robert Hirschfield as Leo upstairs among the chaos on the front desk.
In between there were superb performances from Charles Haid, Michael Warren, Keil Martin, Dennis Franz, Joe Spano, Rene Enrique, Robert Prosky, Ken Olin, Jon Cypher, Ed Marinaro and Taurean Blaque.
And who could forget Trinidad Silva as the cooly hip Jesus Martinez, head of a Latino Gang who would partially redeem himself by eventually trying to come good.
Another fine actress was Barbara Bosson who was the real-life wife of Steven Bochco. She played Fay Furillo, the captain's vulnerable ex-wife who faced a nervous breakdown on a daily basis.
Unfortunately her character was the only one that a lot of fans could have done without as her regular hysterics and floods of tears in the station became a real source of irritation for many. It may have been something of a relief when the fragile Mrs Furillo did not appear in the last series.
The programme obviously dealt with harrowing and traumatic issues as the characters tried to keep a lid on the murderous ‘Hill’ where drugs deals, racial tensions and gang warfare were daily occurrences.
However the darker side was often enlivened by uproarious black comedy reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh’s ‘The Choirboys’ or Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels with fake shooting pranks at the expense of rookies, grossly eccentric characters and untimely, sometimes tragic moments.
Many actors and actresses appeared on the series before they were famous. Therefore it is an interesting curiosity to see many well-known celebrities, who were then unknown, pop up in various episodes or even appear as regulars on the show.
Actors like Danny Glover, Forest Whittaker, Jonathan Frakes, Linda Hamilton, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Dwigh Schultz, Mimi Rogers, Michael Biehn, Brent Spiner, Chris Noth, Joaquin Phoenix, Cuba Gooding Jnr and Ally Sheedy all had small parts.
Surprisingly it was Jeffrey Tambor who rose from the side part of eccentric lawyer turned judge Alan ‘Give ‘em Hell’ Wachtel to become well known as Garry Shandling’s sidekick Hank on the brilliant ‘Larry Sanders Show’.
But probably the most successful of them all is David Caruso who went on to carve reasonable success in the movies but more especially in Bochco’s ‘NYPD Blue’ starring alongside Dennis Franz and as Horatio Caine in ‘CSI Miami’ which has a huge following.
And of course there was Frances McDormand, who played a cocaine-addicted lawyer in Hill St, who went on to Oscar success for her role in 'Fargo' playing a female cop in the Cohen Brothers quirky thriller.
Strangely however, most of the main cast members never went on to greater things which is highly ironic considering the how good they were. Despite the potential star quality on offer of the likes of Veronica Hamel and Ed Marinaro the vast majority of the cast have never scaled the heights since the series ended.
The best that most have successfully attained is appearing in minor roles and guest appearances on popular shows and films. Others have ended up on obscure cable shows and little known movies.
In fact Daniel J. Travanti has explicitly distanced himself from the show believing that it held back his career through being typecast. He muched preferred to tread the worthy, thespian and more satisfying boards of the theatre.
However, behind the cameras Charles Haid and Betty Thomas carved themselves a niche in direction with a certain degree of success. Charles Haid has been behind the camera on many TV shows, most notably on several episodes of 'E.R.', 'Nip and Tuck' and most recently on 'Criminal Minds' plus the TV movie 'Buffalo Soldiers.
Betty Thomas has had even more success in cinema directing the popular 'Doctor Doolittle' starring Eddie Murphy and also behind the helm of Howard Stern's outrageous 'Private Parts' movie.
Ken Olin has also become a director of such shows as 'The West Wing' after playing a lead part in front of the camera in 'Thirtysomething' from 1987-91.
In the script room the fabulously talented Anthony Yerkovich unfortunately stopped writing for 'Hill Street Blues' after three series and moved on to other projects. Subsequently he had immediate success with 'Miami Vice' in 1984 when he teamed up with Michael Mann.
Incredibly, given that he was the brainchild behind the show, Steven Bochco himself was eventually fired from 'Hill Street Blues'. He then went on to create 'L.A. Law', a successful show about Los Angeles attorneys and also the musical show 'Cop Rock' which was less well received..
Certainly when you watch episodes of 'Hill Street Blues' now, over 20 years later it will have dated a little around the edges. It is amusing to realise that there are no mobile phones on screen as anxious cops look around the streets for a call-box or Furillo responds to a disruptive pager while enjoying a meal in a restaurant.
But all shows will age to some extent and even today 'Hill Street Blues' is still going strong due to its high production values, authentic scenes, fine acting and ultimately intelligent storylines and sparkling dialogue.
It enjoys a high repeat value as in this modern age of disposable culture and fast-food entertainment we know we can return to it time and time again. With every viewing it's possible to discover something new and surprising to discover. Such is the richness, depth and texture of this rough-hewn diamond which will offer a timeless appeal to all generations.
And in conclusion just to finish off this briefing let's end with Mike Post's classic theme tune from the show.....
An unofficial Facebook tribute to the legendary TV series.
.........and remember................. LET'S BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 07, 2013:
I had to give this truly- perfect analogy of television's first show which mixed real human flaws with real human attributes.
I noticed that Keil Martin, would-be ladies man, alcoholic, "J.D. Lareux," was not in the photo above, but "Belker, " was.
I used to live for Thursday nights --Cheers and Hill Street Blues. What a great night of television,
Truly good times.
Kim Kennedy from uk on May 06, 2013:
Oh, happy days! This was a great reminder of the fabulous Hill Street Blues. The only thing I don't remember is Fay Furillo being a wimp. She was beautiful. Thanks for the memories!
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on February 24, 2012:
Hi Kenneth, thanks for reading and commenting. I'll need to work out how to put a contact button on my page.
I'll look forward to reading more of your Hubs
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on February 24, 2012:
Shinkicker . . .I agree with drcrischasse . . .great show, Hill Street Blues. Sgt. Phil's morning pep-talk. Belker and his strange foods. Truly a classic ahead of its time. Voted up and all the way. Terrific job of presenting a wonderful topic. Hill Street Blues.
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Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on January 08, 2010:
I still watch it on video. Absolutely love that show.
Cristopher Chasse from Boston on January 08, 2010:
What a great show it was. Thanks for the article on the good old days of television.